I work with dogs with behaviour problems every day. Some of the dogs I work with have bitten people. Some of them have attacked other dogs. Some of them leap at passersby when walking on leash. I see dogs with separation anxiety, with inappropriate elimination issues, who chase lights and shadows and who snap at invisible flies. I see dogs who don’t sleep and who eat things they ought not, and who do a wide variety of very strange behaviours. Over the years I have seen dogs who charge and lunge, who bite, who target the other dogs in the house, who have lunged at me, who have knocked me over, who have targeted another dog in my classroom and who have lost control over their bladders when I have looked at them. There is a really important thing to know about my job. I know what misbehaviour looks like. I don’t need to see your dog show misbehaviour in order to help you. You may wonder why.

The coach probably won’t play this player until he is off crutches and completely healed. The same is true of a dog with a behaviour problem; we don’t want to re-injure your dog by triggering the problem over and over again. Copyright: ljupco / 123RF Stock Photo

The very first thing to know is that triggering the behaviour problem you are experiencing is not good for your dog. It is not in your dog’s best interest for me to see your dog misbehave. If your dog has a serious behaviour problem, every time he practices that behaviour, the behaviour becomes stronger, and that is not what I want when I am helping a family. There is a medical analogy that I like to use to help people to understand. Suppose that you had a broken leg. Every time you go to the doctor for a check up on your leg, would you expect your doctor to ask you to do something that would further injure your leg? Would you agree to jump up and down on your broken leg ten or eleven times to see how much it hurts? Would you expect your leg to ever actually heal properly if you keep re-injuring it?

Every time that you set your dog up to exhibit the undesired behaviour you have come to work on with me, you are re-injuring your dog. I don’t want your dog to get worse! I want your dog to get better. I look at resolving behaviour problems by starting from the point of doing no harm. I don’t want to make matters worse. If seeing your dog misbehaving were helpful, I would be in favour of allowing your dog make as many mistakes as possible but it doesn’t help. It really, really doesn’t help.

The next reason I don’t need to see your dog misbehave is that it often isn’t safe for me, for you, for your dog or for the dogs and people who are around you. If your dog is aggressive towards other dogs, it is really risky for other dogs for your dog to practice that behaviour. It is not safe for me if your dog is practicing being aggressive towards me! If your dog is aggressive towards me, and I have to do something to protect myself, your dog could be hurt. I don’t want to hurt your dog; that is not my job!

If your dog bites me during a consult, I cannot help him. I am not wearing a bite suit to protect myself and if he bites me, I might hurt him protecting myself. It can be dangerous for me to see the problem behaviour. Copyright: mosheruzh / 123RF Stock Photo

The final and perhaps the most important reason to avoid triggering a problem behaviour is that I likely already know what it looks like. I have seen some very wild and woolly behaviour. I have seen a dog with seizure induced aggression; I don’t need to ever see that again. It was extremely dangerous to me and I don’t think the dog was having much fun either. I have seen various types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and that is so hard for the dog to endure. I have seen in person more fear aggressive dogs, defensively aggressive dogs, and confidently aggressive dogs than I care to count. I have seen dog to dog aggression and twice, I have seen dog fights so severe that both dogs nearly died. I have seen play, I have seen affiliative behaviour, I have seen fearful urination and defecation, I have seen leash aggression and I have seen resource guarding. After twenty five years of working with dogs with behaviour problems I have seen more problem behaviour than most pet owners will see in a lifetime. I don’t need to see most of this again, but if there is some reason for me to see a problem behaviour, I want to see it on video, retrospectively. For the very most part I don’t want to see the problem behaviour if I can avoid it.

This probably leaves many readers wondering how I can help if I don’t see the problem behaviour. First off, I want to know what the problem behaviour is, so I ask lots and lots of questions about the problem behaviour. Most people can tell me what I need to know after I ask the right questions to frame the problem. Once I have an idea of what the problem is, I need to know more details to start to help solve the problem. How much does the dog sleep? What does he eat? Is there something that happens right before the problem appears? Has the dog caused any injuries? How much exercise does the dog get and what kind of exercise is it? Who does the dog live with? Who does the dog play with? How is the dog’s health? Does the dog have any pain related issues?   When I know about as many of the contributing factors as I can find, I can start to formulate a plan to help the dog and their family.

The first thing I will do after taking a history from family members is develop a management plan to avoid the problem. As with my example of a broken leg, for a period of time, I don’t want the dog to be re-injured by being triggered by the things that disturb him. I think of your dog having an episode of bad behaviour as being like re-injuring a broken bone. If you do it often enough, you are going to create a permanent and potentially worse problem. If nothing else, your relationship with your dog is not going to be as good as it could be.

Management in behavioural terms simply means setting up a successful environment. This can be very straightforward to do sometimes, but often it can be tricky. When you are talking about a dog who is afraid of men in hats, you can usually avoid men in hats for a period of time while you work on the problem. This is much trickier when you cannot tell what triggers the undesired behaviour, and that is where I am often really helpful to my clients. I have years of experience coming up with unique and creative ways to prevent exposing your dog to the things that set him off.

When we are talking about problems such as house soiling, I often have a few cards up my sleeve that you may not have thought of; it isn’t just common sense even though simple solutions are often what works. Often, coming in with experience and fresh eyes can help me to develop a plan to meet your dog’s needs even though you may have already thought up a number of solutions of your own and yet still, I don’t need to see your dog making the error to help.

The next thing I want to do is to determine what is driving or motivating the problem behaviour. If your dog is toileting in the house, but only does it on days when he or she is asked to stay home alone for ten hours at a time, then what is motivating him is a full bladder. If you get someone to come in and toilet your dog half way through the day, then he won’t have a full bladder and won’t soil in the house. That is a simple example of the kind of problem solving I help my clients with.

2309147_s This dog is showing us all his teeth and his tongue is retracted deep into his mouth. I know what this looks like! I even know what is most likely motivating him; he is guarding his stick. I don’t need to see your dog do the same thing in order to understand what resource guarding looks like or to help you help your dog! Copyright: cynoclub / 123RF Stock Photo

Some situations are more complex though. I have worked with dogs who are afraid of a myriad of things in their environments and the first step we have to take is to teach the dog that he is safe within his own environment. Once I have done that, we can start to expand his success puddle from within the house and yard to the street, the neighbourhood and then beyond. Sometimes the motivator behind the behaviour is medical; then I need to work with my client’s veterinarian to resolve the motivation. Sometimes it is hard to tell what the motivation is, and then I get to work like a detective solving a mystery to figure out how to help.

The final step in the work I do is to help you to teach your dogs the skills they need to succeed in their new reality. When we aren’t triggering the dog over and over again, and when we change what motivates the undesired behaviour, the next step is to examine what skills the dog needs to successfully navigate the situations that used to be a problem. Sometimes when I work with aggressive dogs the aggression is triggered by a specific triggers (such as men in hats) and it is motivated by fear (perhaps a man in a hat startled the dog when he was a puppy) and when we overcome those two components, we need to teach the dog what he should do instead of being aggressive.

By now you may be thinking “gee, your work sounds pretty straightforward” and to be completely honest you are not wrong, but I still hold the card of experience. I know how to evaluate the situation and what questions I need to ask to find out what the problem might be. I can recognize when the motivation that is driving the problem might be medical instead of behavioural. I know where to start when we attack the problem you have come to see me about. And I know what skills to teach your dog to give him tools to use in his tool box.   I also know that although it might be flashy, your dog’s life is not a TV show, so I don’t need to see him exhibit the undesired behaviour!



Originally published November 2013

The pinnacle of my relationship with my dogs is being able to take them off leash and walk with them anytime, anywhere.  Being ABLE to do so is different from choosing to do so when it would not be in their best interest, but being able to do so is magic.  Taking my dogs to a natural area and letting them run free has been one of the greatest relationship building activities I have ever had the pleasure of engaging in.  We are doing different things in the same environment together.  We each explore in our own way, and do different things within the environment that are meaningful for us.

When I was a child, I was fortunate enough to live in an area where I had access to wilderness trails anytime I had time to explore them.  I was also fortunate enough to have a dog to share those adventures with.  I never went for a hike; I always described it as going exploring.  We had fields and woods and swamps to explore and rarely did I encounter other people there.  It was a peaceful oasis for me in an otherwise chaotic life.  Thurber, my dog, would come with me and help me to break trail in the winter snow and find new places in the spring, summer and fall.  Watching Thurber is part of what led me into the field of dog behaviour.  She told me all sorts of things, just by her body language.

I could always tell when people were around, by what she did.  If she knew them, she would orient on them and wag her tail, low and slow and then run towards them when they got close.  If she didn’t know them, she would orient on them but stand really still.  By observing my dog, I got to see many more things out in the wild land that surrounded my home.  She would tell me when other dogs were close by, when wildlife was near and when there was fire, all through her behaviour.

When I grew up, I moved to Guelph and got a dog.  We spent countless hours walking through the bush, often at night.  A whole new world opened up to me.  The woods in the dark is a beautiful and mysterious place and because I was accustomed to using my dog to signal what was around me, I could easily avoid things I didn’t want to engage with, such as teens out drinking or wild life.

Over the years, I have shared hours and days and weeks of time out in the natural world with my dogs.  By observing my dogs closely and preparing for the activities, I have been rewarded with breath taking events, great laughs and some sadness too.  All of these activities have been enhanced by sharing my time and experiences with my dogs.

When puppies are really young, the key to success is to get them off leash as early as possible.  The first day home, I take my puppies out onto our farm and let them off leash.  Young pups don’t tend to go far.  If I have a breed of puppy who I think might be a problem, such as a terrier or a hound, I will put a light leash on the puppy to drag along for the first few times, but getting the puppies out of doors and off leash as soon as possible is a very high priority for me.  I keep treats with me so that when the puppy comes bolting BACK to me, I have something to give him that he wants.  Most pups want to keep the familiar person in sight at 8 weeks of age.

At eight weeks of age, puppies aren’t able to get away from you; they don’t want to be alone, and they aren’t very fast.  This is the right age to start off leash activities.

I try and mix up the places I take my pups so that they are not always familiar with the terrain.  This teaches them to look to me for information.  The more new places I can go, the better in my opinion, but I have to keep a bunch of things in mind.  I don’t want to run into other dogs, especially dogs I don’t know.  That could expose my puppy to diseases I don’t want him to catch, or to behaviours I don’t want him to experience.  I also don’t want to run into the stools of unknown dogs because I want to protect my young pup from worms.

I don’t want to run into predators either.  Hawks and owls can easily take a young small puppy.  Coyotes, wolves and bears are also a concern in some parts of Canada.  Even foxes can be a problem and will take a small dog if they stumble across it.  Water can be another natural hazard to be aware of.  About four years ago in Guelph, a young pup was playing on the ice and fell in and drowned.  Fast water, deep water, ice and hidden water are all things I keep in mind when I am taking my puppies out for their first excursions into the natural world.

Introducing puppies to water should be done in shallow safe areas where you can get in and help if they run into trouble.  Ideally, pups should start to learn about water before they are 16 weeks old.

As puppies get older, they start to get a little more independent, and we start seeing pups bolting at about 12 to 16 weeks.  When this starts to happen, I quietly follow the puppies and step out of sight when they realize they cannot see me.  Most puppies start looking for me right away, and that starts them on the road to a million dollar recall; they learn that their job is to keep an eye on me lest I disappear on them.  I don’t want to frighten a pup, but I do want to make sure they know that if they are not paying attention to me, they may lose me.  When they find me, I make a big deal about how clever they are and how much I value them finding me.  I always bring treats with me so that I have something to give the puppy when he finds me.

At about 16 weeks of age, I start bringing multiple dogs on walks with me.  I use my older dogs to teach my youngsters that the aim of the game is to walk as a group and that although they are welcome to go and explore things or find surface water to cool off in or drink, they need to stick with the group.  The older dogs are usually faster at coming back when called and the puppies learn to come quickly by following their older peers.  I also start to leash up during the walks at this age.  Half way through the walk, I will call, catch and treat the puppy, perhaps do a bit of training and then let him go back to exploring and playing.  Whenever I am on the trail, even if I don’t intend to use my leash, I always have one with me and I always have collars on my dogs.  If we are traveling through particularly dense bush, I also put a bear bell on my dog so that I can find him should he stray.

 Eco 012
I like to take adolescent dogs out in the company of older trained dogs to help them to learn important lessons such as coming when called.

Around about 20 weeks, I can start to see something I call the recall sweet spot.  This is the point at which the dog is still willing to come when called.  If he gets out beyond the sweet spot, he is much harder to get to come back.  The problem I see most often in my client sis that they allow the dog to range much too far away before they call them back and the dog is out of the sweet spot and into the danger zone.  At this point, I will often stop going out in the bush and go to safe, enclosed sports fields instead, and work mostly on coming when called and lying down at a distance.  The down at the distance is the brakes on my dog; if I don’t have a good set of brakes I don’t trust that my dog will stop if I need him to do so.  If he bolts across a road, and a car is coming, I don’t want to trust that he will just stay on his side of the road; I train him to lie down and stay at a distance for his own safety.

Working with my puppies off leash early and often allows me to do much more advanced work than I could do if I never let them off leash.  There is an idea I keep coming across that says that the dog must earn the right to get off leash by proving himself to be trustworthy in his recall.  This turns into a chicken and egg scenario; you cannot trust the dog off leash because he hasn’t earned it and he hasn’t earned it because you don’t trust him off leash.  By taking advantage of the early time in his life when he is reliable about staying close by due to his developmental stage, then we can teach him what we want to do.  I think also that this attitude of earning off leash privileges conveys an interesting attitude of distrust about our dogs; we are assuming that the dog wants to leave us.  Very few dogs actually want to leave us.  Some of them want to have more time to do their own thing or to explore but few dogs are actually invested in escaping.  Most dogs like their people and like their life, and don’t want to be left behind.

This is the goal.  Adult dogs who are willing to stay with me, and explore the world around us.  Off leash work is all about doing the similar things together and sharing the wonder of the natural world.

As a closing note, I want to point out that when I take a dog out to enjoy the natural world, I do this with planning and intent.  I don’t just go out and take off the leash and hope for the best.  Even when I am hiking with friends, if I have a dog with me, there is always a small part of my attention devoted to where the dog is, at all times.  I am always aware of my dog’s sweet spot, and what might happen if I allowed him to roam beyond the safe distance that I know he will readily come within.  I always make it worth my dog’s while if I call him back to me; calling just to prove that I can is grandstanding and disrespectful.  If my dog is engaged with something, I try and be aware of it and go and have a look for myself.  This pays big dividends in many ways.  As a child, I learned to use my dog’s behaviour as information, and honing that skill as an adult has allowed me to see turtles and snakes hatching, nests of ground dwelling birds and the droppings of a great horned owl.  By following my dog’s lead in some of these exploration activities, I am able to connect with my dog on a deep and meaningful level.  When I call, he assumes I will have something equally interesting to share with him, be that a treat, a chance to work, or the opportunity to see something that I notice and find interesting.



Originally posted April 2013

Probably the toughest question you get as a dog behaviour consultant is “why does my dog have this problem”.  Regardless of the problem, aggression, anxiety, fears and phobias, separation anxiety, everyone wants to know why THEIR dog has a behaviour problem.  This is important to people for a variety of reasons including but not limited to the genetics of the dog, how he was raised and where he lives now.

When I saw Dr. Ian Dunbar speaking in Guelph several years ago, he made the point that the only time we can prevent a genetic problem from coming up is before the puppy is bred.  Once mom and dad have done their thing, whatever they pass along is expressed in the puppies.  This implies a very big responsibility on the part of the breeder, but also on the part of the puppy buyer.  In every class we take a moment to ask people about their choice of puppy and the responses are interesting.  They range from the serious dog enthusiast, like us who spends years meeting dogs they like, and visiting shows and breeders to select the best possible parents for the puppy and then selecting the offspring of those puppies, through the asinine.  Our most unusual rational behind getting a puppy involved a lady who went into a store looking for a potted plant for her sun room and came out with a Belgian Tervuren.  Not a terrifically easy Terv either.

If you are going to take the time to add a dog to your home, consider meeting at least mom first.  Meeting mom and dad should happen when mom is not being bred and there is an important and poorly kept secret about best practices in breeding.  If mom AND dad are on sight, it is unlikely they are a great match as breeding partners.  Sometimes, but not usually.  Usually, if you own a breeding bitch, you select a male or dog from someone else’s kennel to augment your breeding program.  If you are breeding dogs on purpose, you should have a goal in mind and once you have bred your brood bitch once, if she whelped or “threw” what you were looking for, you would keep one of the pups back to breed in a couple of years.  Often a reputable breeder will have a mom and a daughter on site, or even a granddaughter.  Normally the breeder might be breeding one of these dog in a year, but it is not common that a breeder would be breeding these dogs repeatedly.  There are exceptions; service dog organizations might be producing multiple litters, or kennels that provide dogs to the police and military might produce many litters, but in general, people who are serious about their breeding keep mom on site and take her to dad for breeding.

You don’t want to meet mom when she is in heat because she will be hormonally all over the map.  For the first while she will be very cuddly.  Then she will be somewhat stand offish.  Then she will be flirty, but not receptive to attention.  And finally she will only be interested in breeding the closest male.  When you do meet the bitch, you should be looking at her in terms of how she behaves.  Is she polite?  Is she nervous?  If she is behaving aggressively will she call off when the owner asks her to mind her manners?  Is she timid?  Is she a dog you could live with?  If she isn’t a dog you could live with, tomorrow, without any other training, then do you really want to live with the puppy she produces and teaches for the first eight weeks?

You don’t want to meet the sire of your litter on site either.  You should be visiting him separately from the bitch and you should be able to approach him and handle him.  If the stud is not a gentleman, do you really want one of his pups?  Probably not.  Once you have met the bitch and the sire, recognize that breeding is not like mixing paint; if you breed a tall dog to a short dog, you will not necessarily get a medium sized dog.  You probably won’t get any dogs who are as tall as their tallest parent and you also probably won’t get any dogs who are as small as their smallest parent, but you also are unlikely to get a litter of dogs all exactly the same size and all exactly mid way between the parents’ heights.

When you are meeting the parents of the litter you are interested in, the best thing you can do is to ask the breeder and the owner of the stud what they are aiming to produce in their litter.  They should be able to give you some really good information about what they are aiming for and why they think that these dogs will produce that.  if you don’t think you could live with either of the parents, most likely you are not going to be able to live with the offspring and the only time you get to make a genetic decision about a puppy is before he is bred.  Once mom and dad have bred, the genetic potential is set.  As a consumer, you get to make another choice though and that is to not purchase any puppy whose parents temperaments you don’t like.  For more information about choosing a good set of parents you can visit my blog called “Good Breeders Few and Far Between?” at http://tinyurl.com/bzulzj

Once you have chosen great parents and a fantastic breeder, the next place you can directly influence behaviour problems is when the puppies are born.  This is what I call the “Miss Manners” stage.  It is everything that happens from the time the puppies are born until they are about 6 months of age when all the major social milestones have passed.

Ideally, puppies should have the opportunity for Early Neurological Stimulation in the litter before their eyes and ears open.  You can find out more about ENS at http://tinyurl.com/d8a25dsEarly Neurological Stimulation gives your puppy the best chance at having great bounce back at avoiding anxiety issues and at overall better health.  If you are visiting breeders, take a copy of Dr. Battaglia’s work with you and ask them if they know about it and if they are doing it.  If they are doing “our own version” and are not willing to talk about concrete data and results, then they are not doing ENS; they may be giving the pups a lot of advantages, but then again they may not.

 Spider Pups Enriched Environment
Here is a great puppy den.  Look at all the surfaces and textures and toys, and everything is very clean.  This is what your puppy’s nest should look like when he is creeping and crawling from about four weeks till about 6 weeks when the litter can move onto bigger and better things.

When the pups begin to creep and crawl, they should have wonderful opportunities to climb, carry things around with them, explore and find things and generally develop the best brains possible.  If a breeder is sending out litter pictures and there are no images of toys and the pups are housed on flat newspaper, then they are going to have much more trouble as they develop learning about things like carrying items and climbing.  The person who does this the best in North America in my opinion is Suzanne Clothier.  Duckhill Kennels in the US does a fantastic job getting their little guys ready to go home and they do incredible stuff with their older dogs too; their Youtube video is well worth the watch if you want to know how to really do it in style;  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuE1iGc-IZ0   Developing confident out going pups who are happy and eager to work is a lot of fun and is the least that a puppy deserves.

Then the puppy goes home and it is up to whomever had your pup between 8 and 16 weeks to introduce him safely to everything and everyone he will meet in the world.  If every puppy were carefully socialized during this period of time, there would be far fewer problem dogs in the world.  You can fix a lot of problems from the genetics department if you know what you are doing at this stage.  Not every genetic problem is fixable, but many of them are.  This means a great puppy school, and a great family who will help that pup to get where he needs to go and feel safe about doing it.

Before your pup hits 6 months, he also needs to learn things like not to jump up when greeting and not to drag you down the street to meet people, and not to snarf food off the table.  In short he needs to learn to be mannerly and to ask politely for the things he wants.  If you do your homework diligently at this age, before he gets huge, before he is able to knock you over, and before he is an adolescent, then adulthood is much easier.  If you have put everything into place before this stage, and he has good genetics, then you are ready for what might happen in the event that your puppy encounters a War Zone.

War Zones are what I call the horrific situations that dogs end up in that we wish they would not.  A car crash can set a nice dog seriously back if he is not resilient enough to incorporate that into his experience and look at it as something that happened just once.  Living in complete chaos is another kind of war zone that many dogs experience, and those resilient dogs are those who do just fine, even though they don’t live in an optimal situation.  It is also important to understand that what might be normal for one dog, may be unreasonable for another to cope with.  Labrador retrievers should not worry when guns go off suddenly and unexpectedly.  A working herding dog such as an Australian Shepherd should not be frightened by gunfire, but also should be concerned for the flock if he is hearing a lot of it.  When a dog goes through a War Zone, his ability to cope is going to depend on his genetics, which cannot be changed once he is conceived, and what happened between birth and six months, the “Miss Manners” stage.

There are four conditions here to consider.  There is the dog who as great genetics and who had a wonderful puppyhood.  This pup may be frightened but is likely going to bounce back and cope once the crisis is over.  These are the dogs who experience bad things and take the experience in stride.  These are also the dogs who sometimes seem not to worry about anything, no matter how crazy the situation is that you put them in.  These dogs also cope with unpleasant experiences by changing their behaviour, not by having a meltdown.

Then there are the dogs who have really, really sound genetics, and but didn’t get a great start in life.  Often these dogs cope just fine with war zones, but they may not always respond as predictably as we would like for them to respond.  They may behave quite outrageously or with a lack of inhibition.  They may be explosive in their responses.  Their bounce back from crises is not as fine tuned as their cohorts who got what they needed from birth onward.

D’fer as a puppy.  He has terrific genetics and had as perfect a puppyhood as I have ever seen.

Then there are dogs who got rolled the crummy genetic dice, but who had great puppy hoods.  These dogs may learn to cope with war zones, but they are never as good at it as those pups who got great genes.  These pups really ought to be in the hands of people who recognize problems early and who know what to do about it.  The sad fact is that these pups often end up in the hands of beginners and without a lot of support and luck, they end up in difficulty.

Next we have the dogs with decent genetics, but a really crummy puppyhood.  This was probably the situation that best describes how I ended up as a behaviour consultant; I had a dog who was genetically okay, but not fabulous, but she had a very difficult puppyhood.  We didn’t know as much as we do now, and I flooded her with all the things that frightened her believing that I was socializing her.  I was told to take her to the market, and the park and to let children give her treats.  I tried really, really hard, and looking back I can see that I frightened her.  Puppy classes were not available at that time and I did what I thought best.  I introduced my pup to people and when she showed that she was afraid by hiding behind me, I would put her in front of me and when she wouldn’t take treats, I would get frustrated and sometimes angry.  She was moderately fragile in her ability to cope to begin with and when I overwhelmed her as much as I did, she finally figured out that biting would make the scary thing go away.  The way that I over socialized this pup left her without good coping strategies as an adult.  This is the most difficult situation of all for the people, because when we look back, we feel overwhelming responsibility.  Looking back, I can see all the errors I made and when she became aggressive towards strangers, I eventually had to euthanize her.  Rest in peace Newtie; never again.  Now I help people to understand why this strategy is a bad idea.

D’fer has great genetics, and we were aware of the potential for overwhelming him.  Here he is in the bathtub for the first time.  You can tell he is not confident or happy because his brow is furrowed, his ears are dropped back and his eyes are quite large.  Realizing he was uncomfortable, I got in with him!

Finally we have the dog with both crummy genetics and a crummy puppy hood.  These dogs are fragile and don’t have any coping skills.  These dogs are the ones who present as frightened and withdrawn and overwhelmed or as over confident and defensively aggressive.  A lot of these dogs have a great deal of bravado but when faced with someone who comes back at them will back down and sometimes flee.  In an acute war zone, such as a home invasion or a car crash these dogs are extremely frightened and cannot escape their fears.  These dogs will often exhibit all sorts of behaviours that demonstrate their anxiety.  When they live with people who recognize the signs of their anxiety and can protect them from frightening stimuli, they can sometimes cope, but when they live with people who don’t recognize their anxiety, they really struggle.  When these dogs live in chaotic situations where stress is a part of day to day life, these dogs are often very overwhelmed and their people even if they are well meaning may not recognize that they are over threshold because these dogs don’t act out.

If you are looking for a stable pet, you need to start with good genetics.  Once you have found the genetic picture you want to live with, then make sure that your pup is raised to the standards of Miss Manners. He will need a great puppy class where the instructors are able to help you to recognize when your pup might be approaching threshold and help you to address that, while gently expanding your pup’s horizons.  Finally, avoid war zones with your pups.  If you have a herding dog, recognize that traffic may be over stimulating for them.  On the other hand, if you share your life with a retriever, getting upset that he is picking up everything that is within reach is just frustrating for both of you.  Choose carefully, expose to society with care, and avoid placing your dog in crises.

If you have a dog with serious behaviour issues, there are really three major sources of problems.  The genetics may be a problem.  He may not have had all the advantages of Miss Manner’s upbringing.  Or he may live in his equivalent of a war zone. Most likely though, there are elements of all three issues.



Originally posted November 7, 2013


When a dog comes into my classroom I have a little under a second to determine if that dog is going to be safe to handle and train in the setting we are in.  If we are in a group class, I have a responsibility to my students and their dogs to make sure that everyone is safe at all times.  The way that I assess if a dog is safe to have in the classroom is to carefully observe what he is doing.  A problem that sometimes crops up is that the dogs I am seeing may be dangerous, but the people may have lived with this dangerous behaviour for so long that they don’t recognize the risk anymore.  They will tell me that the behaviour is “normal” for that dog.

Our perceptions of normal have a lot to do with what we have directly experienced ourselves.  If we grow up in a home that is nurturing and caring, we consider that to be a normal family.  If we grow up in a home where people shout and bully, then shouting and bullying is our definition of a normal family.  When we live with dogs with issues, then our normal may include behaviours that just aren’t normal.  I remember visiting one of my sisters when she had left home.  She had an elderly Labrador retriever, inherited from her then boyfriend’s mother.  Tacked to the fridge was a list of things you could not do to the dog lest the dog bite you.  On the list were things such as picking up spilled food off the kitchen floor, reaching out and touching the dog, staring at the dog, singing or laughing loudly, and dancing.  My sister’s normal revolved around avoiding getting the dog worried enough that she would bite.  Sadly, my sister did not recognize that this is not a normal way to live with a dog.

Dogs have a culture.  Many people don’t recognize their culture, and when their dog transgresses against what is normal culture, the people are surprised and often shocked when their dog gets into trouble.  Staring is not polite dog behaviour.  Neither is charging.  Or walking in a straight line directly into another dog’s space.  Or barking and lunging against a leash.  Often when a family comes in to get help for their dog, their dog is engaging in a lot of these behaviours and the results are that the dog is getting into trouble either with people or with other dogs.  The trouble they get into is varied.  The dog may be getting attacked by other dogs.  Or people may be avoiding the dog.  Or the dog may have attacked a person.  Often the dog has been signalling for a long time that he is uncomfortable and that he is going to bite, but the people who live with this dog don’t recognize the signals because their normal is not the normal that includes these signals as danger signals.  One of the toughest aspects of my job is facing a dog who is clearly telling me that he might bite, when the family has been living with the dog for a long time, and feels that the dog is safe because this is their “normal”.

The other issue they come with is when their expectations of “normal” are not safe.  When they have a dog who is dangerous at the door, and they feel that the dog is protecting the home and that protecting the home is “normal”, then they encourage a dangerous behaviour over and over again.  One of the very common behaviours that I see people doing is sitting down in public with their dog on a leash, and the dog is standing between them and the rest of the world, with a rigid posture, staring at whomever approaches.  The dog is guarding the person the way he might guard a precious bone.  The person thinks the dog is relaxed and happy but in fact the dog is engaged in a very dangerous behaviour that the person is supporting and encouraging.  The first problem with this behaviour is that the dog is treating the person not like a partner, but like a possession.  This is not the foundation of a healthy relationship.  The second part of the problem is that the dog is guarding his stuff; we have a name for this; resource guarding, and it is one of the most common reasons that dogs bite.  When you think that guarding an item from people is a normal behaviour, you don’t ask about if it is a safe behaviour.

When I ask about the signals I am seeing, often my clients will tell me that they have not seen the behaviours that I am seeing or that the dog “doesn’t really mean it”.  They tell me that this is “normal” for their dog.  I don’t think my clients are lying.  I think that their normal includes these behaviours as though they are benign.  I think that these clients have lived with the behaviours for so long that they are part of the normal of their lives.  The dog offers these behaviours so frequently, that the owners of these dogs stop seeing these behaviours as abnormal or dangerous.  What behaviours have I seen in this realm?  Growling.  Air snapping.  Sleeve grabbing.  Guarding.  Hard eye.  Staring.  Lunging.

When I first meet a dog, I have less than a second to determine if the dog is safe or dangerous.   The behaviours are “normal” but they are not safe.  One of the first and most obvious signs is growling.  Not all dogs will growl, but if a dog growls when I first meet him, I pay attention.  Growling is a signal that tells me that the dog is about to bite.  It is an auditory signal and it is pretty hard wired into the dog; they don’t fake it.  If the dog is growling, I back off.  I take whatever pressure that is on the dog off the dog, and make things calmer.  This may help to prevent a bite.  When I work with clients who are upset about growling, the first thing I do is teach them the R and R Method of dealing with Growling, which is outlined here:  https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/?s=sMOKE+DETECTORS.  Growling is actually part of a bite sequence.  The bite sequence is Orient, Freeze, Growl, Lunge, Bite.  If you are lucky you have a dog who will growl for a long, long time before lunging and biting.  During the orienting and freezing phase, you are going to see a lot of body language that tells you what is coming next.  Here are some faces I see in class with comments on what they are telling me.

This dog has his lips pulled forward and tight and his tongue is far back in his mouth so that if he bites, he won’t bite himself.  This dog actually means business in my opinion.  His ears are pulled tightly back, and he looks tense and worried.  This may be his normal and this may be something that the owner sees every day.  The owner may even feel that her dog is “safe” because her dog does this so often.   Even if I am wrong, I would not reach for this dog because I will always believe the dog and err on the side of caution.  Image credit: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

When the sort of dog shown above shows up at class, and he does from time to time, he is telling me not to touch him.  Specifically, he is telling me that he is ready to bite because he has pulled his tongue back, and pulled his lips forward so that he won’t bite his own mouth if he needs to do his teeth.  His ears are also pulled tightly back against his head, telling me that he is really uncomfortable.  I look at the distance from the corner of the eye to the corner of the ear to tell me if he is holding his ears tightly against his head because sometimes the shape of the ear can be misleading.

Here is a better image of the distance between the corner of the eye and the ear.  Notice that this lab has his ear pulled right back as far as he can pull it away from his eye.

 Copy of zd
This dog is showing us both the round eye typical of a distressed dog and the ears pulled as far back as possible from the eye.  Don’t reach for this dog.  He isn’t deceiving us with his facial expression.  He is uncomfortable and upset.

Hard eye is the term we use to describe the hard rounded eye of the intense dog who is glaring directly at you.  This dog is extremely dangerous and likely to bite.  He is not happy and relaxed.  One of the things that characterizes this eye is the dilation of the pupil.  This doesn’t come alone though; when the dog’s eye is hard, he also has his ears pulled back so that the skin between the eye and the ear is taut.  I will never reach in to give a treat to these dogs because they are clearly telling me to stay away.

This little dog is clear in her message; I am not happy or comfortable, and I am going to bite if you reach in towards me.  Notice how dilated her pupils are; I can fix green eye in my pictures, but often this clue in an image helps me to better notice how big the dog’s pupils are.  Another clue that this dog is uncertain is her right paw-she has lifted it and dogs often do this when they are uncertain.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Here is a dog who is relaxed but orienting on something.  He is relaxed but alert, and he could become aroused and tense very quickly.  When a dog is orienting on a variety of things, he is hypervigilant, and hypervigilant dogs live in a very tough world; everything that they hear or see is a potential threat, and they get stuck in a cycle of looking for threats until eventually they find one and their concerns are reinforced by the stimulus that frightens them.  Orienting is a normal, common behaviour, and as long as the dog isn’t orienting on everything, I don’t worry too much.  This dog is alert, but relaxed so this is a dog I would reach in to and say hello. If he walked into my classroom and was orienting on a wide variety of things, I would not consider him safe though.  He likely wouldn’t have the softer facial features that this dog does if he were hypervigilant.

Orienting is the first step in the sequence that leads to a bite, but it doesn’t mean that the dog will follow along to the end of that sequence.  Often dogs will orient when they hear something or something catches their eye and then they will relax again.

It is important to understand that the dog I see in my classroom may well be very relaxed and safe in other situations.  He may well be relaxed and easy going out in the park, but I am not in charge of what happens in the park.  I am only in charge of what happens in my classroom.  I have to make quick decisions about the safety of the animals in my classroom, and looking at still images helps me to practice my skills of isolating specific behaviours to consider when I am making that decision.  I am always going to decide who comes in my class and who does not based on what I see the dog telling me.  If the dog is telling me that he is safe and relaxed, I will listen to that.  If the dog is telling me that he is tense, guarding or frightened, I am not going to disregard what he has to say.  I am going to keep people and their dogs safe in my classroom.



Last time I talked about talking to my dogs. This time I want to talk about listening and more importantly hearing what they have to say. Dogs are non verbal species. This means that they can only tell us things by their behaviour. It is easy to miss the conversation altogether if you aren’t paying attention and this is an important component of having a successful relationship. Dogs and other non human learners have a lot to say, if we just listen.

This morning when I woke up, D’fer, my elderly Chesapeake was in my room, lying by the bed and panting. And panting and panting and panting. As I became more aware of the day, I tuned into him and I could see that he was obviously in distress. As a non verbal species, it is really tough to figure out what was distressing him, but I can make some good guesses. He is old and often painful, so a good guess is that he was in some pain this morning. He had a heart murmur that resolved, but it could be that he is having heart issues again. We have had a pretty significant weather change today, from cold and wet to hot and humid, so maybe that is what is going on. Noticing what he is doing, I have some choices; I can get up and see if he needs some pain meds, or I can roll over and go back to sleep.

Here, D'fer is telling me that he is relaxed and out of pain.  I can tell this because he is curled into a ball, alseep and not vocalizing.  I also know this because I took the picture just after he got his evening pain medication!  When I see a dog in this state, I can hear that he does not want to be disturbed.  I could wake him if I needed to, but it would be unkind and disrespectful to do so for no reason.  D'fer can sleep in front of me because he knows I will hear him and respect what he is saying.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander 2014
Here, D’fer is telling me that he is relaxed and out of pain. I can tell this because he is curled into a ball, alseep and not vocalizing. I also know this because I took the picture just after he got his evening pain medication! When I see a dog in this state, I can hear that he does not want to be disturbed. I could wake him if I needed to, but it would be unkind and disrespectful to do so for no reason. D’fer can sleep in front of me because he knows I will hear him and respect what he is saying. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander 2014

Imagine for a moment that this was your spouse and you woke up and he or she was breathing heavily, and obviously in distress. What would you do? Perhaps waking him up and checking in might be a good idea. Or perhaps you know that your spouse normally breathes like this in the morning and you just need to nudge him to roll over and you can both have a lie in. What about if this was a newborn? Or your aging grandfather? Knowing something about those who surround you is an important part of “hearing” what they say.

The above example is one where my dog’s behaviour was not one of choice and it is up to me to first off notice and secondly to choose the right action. The action I took was to get up, toilet him and get him his meds. He is on daily pain medication and he needed his next dose. Not all of what the dog tells me is because of his physiology though. Some of the dog’s behaviour is about things that he wants or needs.

When Eco my German Shepherd goes to the gate and looks out at the geese on the pond, I know he would like me to open the gate so that he can go chase geese. He will stare longingly at the geese through the gate, look back at me and then look back to the geese. If I open the gate, he will chase the geese into the sky. Eco thinks that chasing geese is terrific. If it is fall and the geese are not nesting, or if it is spring before the geese nest, I sometimes let him do this as it prevents the geese from eating all of our pasture. If the geese have goslings though, I will tell him that it is not his turn and he will sadly turn away from the gate.  In effect we have a conversation, where he tells me what he wants and I tell him if he can have it or not.

Eco is telling me that there is something happening just outside of our front door.  He doesn't go out because he has been taught not to go out that door unless given permission, but he does like to look when the door is open.  I took this picture as John and I were unloading groceries from the truck.  Eco likes watching things and when I listen to what he is saying I can tell that things are happening.  In this case, Eco was telling me that John was coming up the path.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander 2014
Eco is telling me that there is something happening just outside of our front door. He doesn’t go out because he has been taught not to go out that door unless given permission, but he does like to look when the door is open. I took this picture as John and I were unloading groceries from the truck. Eco likes watching things and when I listen to what he is saying I can tell that things are happening. In this case, Eco was telling me that John was coming up the path. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander 2014

My dogs have ways to tell me a good number of things. Some of them are things that I have taught them to do and some of them are things that they have picked up on their own. If I am watching a movie, D’fer may come up and sit in front of me and if that doesn’t cause me to share then he will turn on his sad Chesapeake act and if THAT doesn’t work, he will rest his chin on my lap, because that almost always works.  D’fer knows how to ask politely, and then with some emphasis and finally he will beg.  He knows that I rarely refuse him if he is truly being cute!

D’fer was trained to alert me to medical events; he would tell me if I was about to get a migraine or have a panic attack. Without getting into how we trained that, if the conditions were right for me to get ill, he would “tell” me by flipping my arm with his nose, or by putting his feet on my chest. He would tell me that I needed to take medication and I would do as told!  This is more of a one way directive, but it is communication indeed.

Today in one of my privates we were working with a dog who has some serious issues with other dogs. We were working to teach him that he can approach without losing his cool. A big part of what we do in that sort of exercise is to “listen” to what the dogs are telling us. Every time this dog would get too close to the trigger dog, he would give a big lip lick. This “tell” or piece of body language would let me know that he was as close to the other dog as he could get without losing control of himself. Listening to what the dog was saying helped me to know when to send the owner back to the safety station. Lip licking is one of a raft of behaviours that dogs do when they are stressed; called displacement behaviours. These behaviours tell us that the dog is approaching a threshold of some sort and that we need to slow down. They can tell us when the dog is distressed or upset or when they need a break. Knowing your own dog and knowing how they tell you that they are over the point at which they are comfortable is an essential part of being successful with your dog. If you don’t respond when your dog is telling you these things, then your dog will think he has to face the world on his own steam. This degrades your relationship because your dog will learn that you won’t listen to him.

This dog is telling her person something important; likely that she is uncomfortable with the proximity of his gaze.  If her person is savvy, he will back off, and show her that he is listening to her.  When we don't hear what dogs tell us, they learn not to trust that we will listen and that degrades our relationships with our dogs.  Copyright: crazysub / 123RF Stock Photo
This dog is telling her person something important; likely that she is uncomfortable with the proximity of his gaze. If her person is savvy, he will back off, and show her that he is listening to her. When we don’t hear what dogs tell us, they learn not to trust that we will listen and that degrades our relationships with our dogs. Copyright: crazysub / 123RF Stock Photo

I have successfully helped several people teach their dogs how to tell them that they need a break in more concrete ways. One dog on my caseload learned to say “Go/No Go” for taking treats from strangers. The concept was really simple, but the ability to communicate that is behind this concept is fairly abstract. First we taught the dog to touch a target. Then we established two targets; one for “Go” and a very different target for “No Go”. If the dog randomly touched the “Go” target, he got a treat. If the dog randomly touched the “No Go” target the person offering the treats backed off and took the treats with them. This dog, a Scottish Terrier named BJ, amazed his people because he would sometimes turn down treats that he normally really liked depending on who was offering the treat. This gave BJ the ability to say when he was ready for interactions with new people, and by being able to say no when he was not ready, he was able to expand the number of people he could tolerate both offering him treats and eventually touching him.

Communication is a special ability that we can use with our dogs, if we are willing to be open to listening to what they have to say. We have to be aware of who our dogs are, what they say and how they say it, and then respond appropriately. Even if the response is “not now”, responding regularly and appropriately is an important way to deepen our relationship with our dogs.



Originally posted May 2013

In Ontario, where I live, the law says that every floor of every home shall have a working smoke detector.  The idea is that if the smoke detector goes off, you have a good chance of getting out before your house burns down.  That is the general idea.  The problem is that smoke detectors don’t work if they have used batteries or worse if they have no batteries at all.  They don’t work if you cut the wires that go to the alarm sound.  They don’t work if they are damaged.  They don’t work if the vents are painted over.  They don’t work if they are taken down and put on a table or the floor.  Smoke detectors only work if they have good batteries, are properly positioned and haven’t been painted over or tampered with.  If a fire starts and you don’t have an operational smoke detector, you are less likely to survive.  In fact, along with your smoke detector, you should probably also have an emergency plan.

Smoke detectors save lives, but only when they are properly installed and have good batteries in them.  Growling is the doggy equivalent of a smoke detector; before the bite happens the growl tells you it is coming.  It is not the only signal dogs give, but it is one of the most important ones. Image credit: 350jb / 123RF Stock Photo

In the past three weeks, I have encountered three clients who have dogs who have growled.  In all three cases my clients were appalled and in two of the three cases the dogs who growled were heavily chastised.  None of my clients were looking at their dog’s behaviour as information; they were looking at it as “bad behaviour”.  In one case the dog was in pain.  In the other two the dog was guarding something.

So what does it mean when a dog growls?  Growling is one of the behaviours that precedes a bite.  In fact, there is a whole sequence of behaviours that usually happen before the dog actually bites.  To begin with, the dog will orient on the target of his aggression, and then freeze.  That freeze behaviour is what happens while the dog thinks through what he is seeing.  In most dogs, you will see them freezing on a regular basis; they are startled or notice something, freeze, think about it a moment and move on.  Once in a while, whatever caught the dog’s attention will cause him sufficient alarm that he goes to the next stage; he will growl.  Growling is a signal from the dog that he is concerned.  When the signal is heard and heeded, the dog will stop growling.  When the dog is confronted, then one of two things happen; either you will win or you will lose.  If you win, the dog will back down and if you lose, the dog will bite you.

Confrontation is almost always a tactic that is risky.  If the dog is confronted often enough by a wide enough variety of people, then he will learn to differentiate between people who will win and people who will lose.  The dog will quickly learn that adults are more likely to be successful, and that children are less likely to be successful.  When the dog determines who to take on, and who to avoid, then he becomes particularly dangerous.  The dog also learns that growling is a tactic that can cause people to attack him, and so he will stop growling.  Let’s keep this in mind.

The dog stops growling.  That is what we want right?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Let’s re-examine the scenarios where my client’s dogs growled.  One was in pain.  Do you want your dog to suffer, or is it better that he tell you that he is hurting so that you can help him?  From where I sit, it would be better if he told me so that I could get him to the vet.  Two dogs were guarding valuable items.  Do I want my dogs to guard their stuff from me?  No, but the problem then isn’t that the dogs growled.  The problem is that they are resource guarding.  At the end of the day, addressing the symptom doesn’t change the problem.  The dog may not growl, but may still guard, and a guarding dog who doesn’t tell you that they are guarding is a dog who bites without warning.

Some of the most dangerous dogs I have met are dogs who don’t growl.  People are proud of the fact that their dog “would never growl”.  A dog who would never growl is a dog who won’t tell you that there is a problem and if things get out of hand or the dog is overwhelmed, then the dog is more likely to bite, and the people are more likely to be surprised.  When bites appear to come out of the blue, one of the questions I ask is about growling, and when people tell me that their dog doesn’t growl I am always concerned because orienting and freezing, the precursors to growling, are often less noticeable to people than is growling.  In those bite cases, the dog has often given tons of signals that a bite is coming but the clients are unaware of those signals because they are not terribly noticeable.

This dog is showing many of the other signals that dogs show before they bite; pinned ears, puckered mouth and his tongue drawn back out of the way.  If the target of this dog had listened to the growl that came first, he may not have escalated!    Photo:  Sue Alexander

Instead of preventing growling, what I really want to do is prevent the need to growl.  Fire prevention ends with a smoke alarm that goes off.  Fire prevention starts with an awareness of the risks, and heeding the signals about what might go wrong.  Birthday candles on a cake can be quite safe; leaving a lit candle in the window to memorialize a lost soldier and then going to the movies is outright dangerous.  Bite prevention starts with recognizing that we don’t need to put the dog in situations where he is going to feel threatened.

This does not mean that we should just allow a dog to do whatever he wants, but if you have a dog who growls when you reach for his bone, you will need to teach your dog that you are not a threat.  You will need to teach your dog that bones are items that he can have and that you will share but that he can also give up.  The best way to do this is to trade for undesired items to teach your dog a pattern, and then work up to trading items that do matter and then trade items that matter a lot.  This is an education and is much safer than teaching the dog to not growl.

The thing is, when you are looking at behaviour problems, you have to look first at what the problem is.  The symptom is not the problem.  Growling is just a symptom.  Resolving growling is like taking the batteries out of your smoke detector; you may not hear any alarms, but you won’t prevent any fires.  And the problem is that if you want to prevent bites, turning off the early warning system is probably the least logical thing to do.  Determining the problem is a much better tactic, and addressing the problem is the best thing you can do.

So what should you do in the case of a growling dog?  My best tactic is to remove the dog from the situation and then reward.  Yes, I reward dogs who growl.  If you are reliable about removing the dog from the situation, and then rewarding the dog, what happens is that the dog when he is frightened will begin to go to you for help, and leave the situation; in effect you teach the dog that he need not stand his ground because it is safe to leave.  It is an elegant self reinforcing loop where the distressed dog will leave the stressful event, and the reward becomes a decrease in stress.

How might that look with a painful dog?  Let’s say that you are approaching the back end of a dog with severe hip dysplasia.  She knows it is going to hurt if you bump into her, and she turns her head towards you, freezes for a very brief instant and growls.  All this happens in less than a second.  You stop and she stops growling.  Walk away, call her to you and give her a treat.  If you know that the dog is in pain, give her a dose of painkiller, or get out the heating pad and treat the pain.

How about the dog who is guarding a bone in their bed?  Again, you approach the dog, he raises his eyes, but not his head.  He stops chewing and freezes in place, and emits a slow growl.  You stop and step back, and leave the room and go to the treat cupboard, and call the dog to you and give him a treat.  Put him out in the yard or in his crate, go get his bone and then set up situations where you can teach him to trade safely.

And how about the dog who is eating dinner, and growls when your five year old walks by and drags her hand over his back?  You call the child away, and then call the dog to the treat cupboard for a treat, and move the bowl to a safer place for your dog to eat.  Children and dogs eating is one of the most important places to prepare for this activity.  If you have a dog and a child, consider carefully where you want to place food bowls.  Do not have children drag their fingers through the dog’s food bowl while they are eating; this is dangerous and not helpful in terms of teaching the dog to be tolerant of children during meals.  Consider this ritual from the dog’s perspective.  Imagine for a moment that you are eating your dinner and your brother in law comes in and drags his hands through your food.  Then, just as you are lifting your fork to your mouth with something incredibly delicious on it he snatches the food off your fork and puts it back on your plate.  Then he touches you all over your body.  Would you not complain?  (this should be a warning to all of my brothers in law, should you be reading; I will react considerably more strongly than just complaining!)

I have a good number of students who have brought me dogs and they tell me that they have been instructed to do this ritual by other trainers, by vets and by vet techs.  This ritual is extremely dangerous and there is nothing in it for the dog.  The original ritual as described by Dr. Ian Dunbar was for the child to bring the bowl to the dog and cue him to sit.  The child put the bowl down, and released the dog and then went and got the dog some “dessert” and added it to the bowl.  Nowhere did he describe dragging your fingers through your dog’s food.  In some bizarre forms of this ritual, I have had clients who have put their faces into the bowls with their dogs in an attempt to show the dog that they can control the food.  This sort of thing is extremely dangerous, and in my opinion disrespectful.  By all means, do the food bowl game where you add a treat for dessert to an already full or half eaten food bowl, but don’t drag your hands through the bowl; that is disrespectful, rude and dangerous.  And feed your dog in a quiet place where he can enjoy his dinner without the risk that someone will do something silly to him while he is enjoying his dinner!

This puppy is peacefully eating his meal.  Dragging your hand through his bowl is not just rude, it is dangerous.  And just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!  By all means, come in and add something delicious as a doggy dessert, but don’t put your hands into his food!  Image credit: andresr / 123RF Stock Photo

There are some dogs who are naturally extremely tolerant and who don’t feel the need to growl, but when a dog does growl, we need to understand that the growl is not about the dog taking over the world.  The growl is a smoke detector; it tells you that there is something happening that you need to attend to.  Punishing the growl just puts the dog in a situation where he cannot win.  He cannot tell you he is uncomfortable and he cannot avoid the situation that makes him uncomfortable, and if pushed, the inevitable will happen and eventually, he will take control with his teeth.  All too often, with a few alternatives provided to the dog, a serious bite can be avoided.  When a dog growls…Remove and Reward.




Stress and anxiety in puppies and dogs is something that we often see and many fail to recognize.  The internet is a fun and fascinating playground for the mind, and we are seeing more and more images that just aren’t that funny once you learn to recognize the signs.  Many of our clients don’t understand why we are upset when we see what they think of as a cute or funny image that they share with us.

No one wants to put a dog in a stressful situation and certainly if the dog were standing with his back arched and his tail tucked and averting his eyes and being avoidant, most of our clients would recognize the dog as upset.  The problem lies in the less obvious signs; those that are not extreme in their presentation.  If we saw a child who would not meet our gaze, who was all hunched over and blinking rapidly, who was afraid, we would not post that image on the internet to share as funny.  We need to stop doing this to dogs, but this phenomenon won’t stop until people recognize stress when they see it. Here is a short primer on how to know when a dog is stressed, and what you can do to alleviate stress in your dog or puppy.

One of the first questions that is often heard in this conversation is “How do YOU know?”  Dog body language is an area that we have spent a lot of time studying.  As early at the 1860s, Darwin was writing about the signs to look for in dogs to help you to understand what the dog is feeling.  Since then we have been collecting images, data and information to help us to better understand the behaviour of our canine friends.  The more you learn and know and the more you work with dogs, the more able you are to fine tune and develop an eye for what might happen.  When you work with dogs who might bite, you learn to notice when the dog’s eyes and ears, mouth, posture and motion tell you that you might be in danger.  A great book to read about dog body language is Barbara Handelman’s “Canine Behaviour; A Photo Illustrated Handbook”.  I was one of the editors on that project and it is a very good compendium of information about canine body language.

darwin dog 2
One of Charles Darwin’s drawings of a dog in distress.  No confusion here about what this dog means!

Let’s start with the eyes.  Eyes tell us a lot.  When the eye is almond shaped, we know the dog is relaxed.  When it is huge and round, we know the dog is really stressed out.  As always, the dog’s natural structure and facial configuration are going to contribute to the overall picture.  In a Pug or a Boxer or a French Bulldog, or any of the brachiocephalic breeds (those with the squished in faces), their relaxed eye is going to be much rounder than the relaxed eye of say a Labrador retriever.  See the images below and compare them.  The round eye is the eye of a dog in distress and the almond shaped eye is the eye of a relaxed dog.

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This Pug has a naturally rounded eye, and it is as relaxed as it can be due to the structure of his face.  Brachiocephalic dogs often have difficulty in social situations with other dogs because their eyes look rounded even when they are not upset or tense.

Staying for a moment in the eye department the other thing we look for in eyes is a huge rounded pupil.  Pupils should be big enough to allow in sufficient light to allow the dog to see, but under normal or high light conditions the pupil should not make up more than 50% of the dog’s eye.  When it does, there is either a medical condition or the dog is stressed.  Along with these big blown out pupils, we also see one of blinking.  When you see a dog blinking more frequently than is normal, you know that the dog is stressed.

Tense, frightened, rounded, blown pupil eye.
Compare the image above to this one.  This is the same dog in a different situation.

Sometimes what we see are dogs who look sleepy.  These dogs are often living with chronic stress.  If you look carefully at their eyes, they may be almond shaped, but more often they are pinched shut, with big pupils underneath.  These are dogs who live with so much distress that they don’t sleep well and they are legitimately tired and sleepy.  Like a pen that has been clicked too often, their systems just don’t respond terribly well, and they are almost in a state of stupor much of the time.  These dogs can be quite dangerous because by the time that they are in enough distress to bite, they don’t have any early warning signals to share with you; they just don’t have the energy.

Then let’s look at the mouth.  When a dog is panting to distribute heat, his tongue is full of blood and the vessels on the bottom of his tongue are dilated to shed the heat as quickly as possible.  His tongue should be a healthy pink and very moist.  When a dog is stressed, he may also pant, but the panting is much different.  Just before a dog bites, he draws his tongue deep back into his mouth and pulls his lips out of the way.  When a dog is stress panting they will often pant with their tongue drawn back into the mouth and their lips held close in so that they don’t hurt themselves if they do bite.    When you look at the corners of a stressed dog’s lips they appear to be pulled forward and the flews or lip flaps are tense.  Sometimes the only thing to see is a puckered whisker bed.  That whisker bed is telling and the story it tells is often chilling.

This image is of a dog doing protection work, immediately before he bit the sleeve.  Notice that he lips are pulled out of the way of his teeth and his tongue is pulled deep into his mouth and out of the way so he doesn’t get hurt.

Ears are another facet of the dog’s face that we can use to tell us what is happening internally with the dog.  When the base of the ear is pinned back against the head, and the skin between the corner of the eye and the corner of the ear is pulled taut, then the dog is telling you that he is afraid, worried or concerned.    It is important to realize that in a drop eared dog, you aren’t going to have the pointy end to look at; you are going to only have the base, so look at the base not the edges of the ears and the distance from the corner of the eye to the corner of the ear.  In a relaxed and happy dog, the skin between the eye and the ear should appear relaxed.

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You should recognize the tense eye now, and look at the tension in the area between the eye and the ear; the ears are pulled all the way back.
 Copy of zd
Eyes and ears together tell us that this dog is unhappy.
This image is of the same yellow lab above, in a relaxed and happy moment.  Notice that the skin between his eye and his ear is loose and relaxed, as is his mouth and his whisker bed.  This dog is relaxed and happy.

Just looking at the face, at the three points of eyes, ears and mouth, should give you enough information to allow you to determine if a still image is one of a relaxed and happy dog or if it is the image of a tense, stressed or frightened dog.  Once you know what you are looking for, the exercise becomes much easier.  The question now is “How do we help stressed dogs?”

Once the picture is taken, there isn’t much you can do to alleviate the distress in the dog, but you can do your part by recognizing when a dog is stressed and stop sharing the images.  When people send you these images, let your mail box be the last stop and return the information to the sender to help them to understand that the dog they are laughing at is uncomfortable and under stress.  When the dog is in front of you though, you have to ask yourself what is the source of the dog’s distress.

Eyes, ears and mouth together.  By now, you should recognize that our yellow lab friend is distressed and needs help getting out of what he thinks of as harm’s way.

If the source is obvious, the answers are easy.  If the source of the dog’s stress is a piece of pain inducing or traumatic equipment, get the equipment off the dog.  If the source of the dog’s stress is a confusing training situation, make the problem easier.  Repeated successes increase the chance that your dog will feel less not more stress.  When the dog feels threatened by a situation, get out of there.  If the dog is in pain, address the pain.  When the cause is simple, the answer is straightforward.

Sometimes though, the cause is not simple.  Sometimes the cause may be something known as layered stimuli.  If you have a dog who doesn’t like going to the vet, doesn’t like car rides, doesn’t like wearing his collar, doesn’t like other dogs and doesn’t like cats, then any one of those stimuli could cause him to be upset.  When you present your dog with all of those situations at once, you have layered all the stressful stimuli on top of one another, and your dog will be even more distressed.  Taking even one of those stimuli out of the picture might make things much easier for your dog.

Recently I worked with a dog who was aggressive towards other dogs, and who didn’t like being touched behind his ribs.  He walked normally, and he moved comfortably, but he didn’t want you to touch his back end.  We worked with the veterinarian and found out that this dog has severely impacted anal glands.  The problem had likely been creeping up on the dog for a long time, and he had become crankier and crankier towards other dogs over time.  By the time he saw me, he was very cranky with other dogs, and he was in a lot of pain.  When we addressed the pain issue, this dog was able to start to learn that he was not under threat.  In evolutionary behaviour we learned about something called ultimate and proximate causes.  The proximate or close cause of this dog’s problem was defensive behaviour to protect himself from the ultimate cause of being in pain.  When we addressed the ultimate cause, we were better able to address the proximate cause.

Below is the image that caused me to think about how we often don’t recognize that a dog is in distress.  Funny picture?  Not really, but the people who have been sharing it thought it was.  This is a dog who looks to me like he is very stressed and frightened.  This is a dog who looks to me like he learned his trick with a lot of force, but it is completely possible that this was gently taught.  The dog may be so conflicted about not taking the cookies that he looks very distressed.  When you are presented with a dog who is showing these signs, point them out and help others to learn that part of protecting your dog’s best interests include ensuring that he is not under distress.


Below are three images from my archives.  See if you can pick out which dogs are stressed and which ones are not.

airplane ears
Look at the eyes, the ears and the mouth.  Is this dog having any fun?  Not really.  If the handler isn’t careful, she will get bitten.  Photo:  Barbara Handelman
Keep in mind that this dog is a brachiocephalic breed and cannot make his eyes any less round.  Look at the distance between the corners of the eye and the ear.  The mouth looks a little tense, but again, due to the shape of his face this dog likely cannot make his mouth less tense.  This dog is quite relaxed.
 aggressive stance with paw lift 538
This lovely image really shows you how far back a dog can pull his tongue out of the way.  Although his eyes appear almond shaped, look at the tension between the corner of his eye and ear; likely his eyes are rounded and pupils blown, but his ear is pulling the eye out of shape.  This is a very unhappy dog.  Photo: Barbara Handelman